Implicit Racial Bias is Malleable but Stable in Young Adults

Lab interventions in young adults can reduce implicit racial bias, but only for hours to days immediately afterward, and do not change explicit racial bias or prejudice

Reviewed by Penny Sun


Recent research on implicit social cognition suggests that implicit associations may be malleable to change. However, the majority of studies on modifying implicit associations only evaluate short term results, with only 3.7% of these 585 studies attempting to look at longer-term change. Of these 22 studies, roughly the same number of publications showed lasting impact, no change, or mixed results. The study reviewed here attempts to shed light on these conflicting data points by systematically evaluating 9 interventions that had previously successfully changed short-term implicit bias and also translated to long term change hours and days afterward.

The researchers found that even when interventions modify implicit racial bias immediately they do not maintain this change days after the intervention. Nor do they impact explicit racial preferences, motivation to reduce prejudice, or support for affirmative action. However, the authors point to other research that suggests that implicit bias reduction interventions may be more effective at producing lasting change when they are introduced earlier in childhood.

This is an important finding that should guide the overall strategy of antiracist training and education. Instead of attempting to change implicit bias as a means for changing explicit racial preferences in adults, strategists should aim to bring implicit bias reduction interventions to settings where children learn their values, such as schools and the elementary school level curriculum.

Methods and Findings

The authors tested 17 interventions aimed to change implicit racial bias and measured whether they were successful. They compared this to a control group. Success was defined as significantly different reaction times in the Implicit Association Test before and after the intervention.

Successful interventions were found to include the following attributes:

  • appealed to emotions
  • created an experience for participants to undergo or imagine themselves in
  • had at least one of the following:
    • introduced positive Black “characters” and negative white “characters”
    • gave concrete strategies to overcome bias
    • repeatedly showed participants paired Black-positive and white-negative stimuli 
    • encouraged a multicultural perspective.

Unsuccessful interventions:

  • emphasized reflecting on egalitarian values or
  • encouraged participants to try seeing things from the point of view of a Black individual. 

The researchers then conducted a second round of experiments among mostly white, female college undergraduates in the US. Using 9 of the previously successful interventions they tested for short-term effectiveness immediately after and again anywhere from 1 to 4 days. In addition to measuring implicit racial bias through the race implicit association test, researchers also evaluated self-reported explicit racial preferences. Finally, they also measured support for affirmative action and internal and external motivations to respond without prejudice. In the first round of experiments, researchers recruited ~ 1,000 participants, then repeated this experiment with a larger set of ~5,000 participants.

In the first study, although half of the 9 previously successful interventions significantly changed participants’ implicit racial bias immediately afterward, none continued to show this effect 2-4 days later in the follow-up assessment. Similarly, in the second study, 8 of the previously successful interventions significantly changed participants’ implicit racial bias immediately afterward, but none continued to show this effect 1-2 days later in the follow-up. None of the 9 interventions impacted explicit racial preference immediately or in the follow-up in either study. Only 25% of participants supported affirmative action in the workplace (6% supported it in higher education), and this support was not related to their implicit or explicit racial preference. 

Overall, participants were motivated to respond without prejudice both based on internal values and external pressure, but their motivation did not impact their implicit racial bias. Of note, participants with high internal motivation had lower implicit and explicit pro-white/anti-Black preferences, while participants with high external motivation had higher implicit and explicit pro-white/anti-Black preference. Researchers also found that the proportion of white and Black students on campus weakly correlated with higher implicit and explicit pro-white/anti-Black preference, which echoes recent findings that people in states with a higher proportion of Black residents tend to show more bias on the implicit association test.


This research that even when interventions change implicit bias, they are ineffective at maintaining this change even hours or days afterward. “Malleability” of implicit preference in the short term does not necessarily lead to lasting change. This is supported by other recent studies in developmental psychology that show that children learn implicit preferences for their own social groups (whether race, gender, religion, etc) within the first year of life, and these preferences are stable throughout development. The researchers also conclude that changing implicit bias does not impact explicit racial preferences, explicit support for affirmative action, or internal/external motivation.

This work considers whether it is truly possible to effect long term change in implicit preference, and poses the possibility that implicit bias reduction interventions may need to be repeated and/or may need to occur earlier in childhood development in order to impact long term implicit preferences. This insight suggests that future studies should prioritize the evaluation of longer exposures to implicant bias modification and examination of the impact of implicit bias reduction interventions in children. This recommendation is significant because it hones in on the importance of early intervention in childhood – and thus the importance of bringing challenges to implicit bias into the classroom and other settings tailored tow


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